What can other cities learn from Mexico City’s bike-sharing scheme?

December 19, 2017 1 By Duncan Green

Some smart thinking from one of my LSE students from last year, Naima von Ritter Figueres. Originally publishedEcobici on the LSE International Development blog

Most cities over the past few decades have been shaped by the car. Heavy traffic, air pollution, safety hazards, and losses in public space, social cohesion and economic competitiveness are all associated with the ever-increasing unsustainable dependence on this form of transport.

Mexico City’s Bike-Sharing System, EcoBici 

A growing number of cities are therefore returning their attention to the humble bike as one viable alternative for individual transport. Bike-sharing systems (BSS), in which bikes are shared by users for short distances, are being introduced as one element of a new sustainable mobility paradigm. They offer a host of benefits including reduced congestion and fuel emissions, transport flexibility, health benefits, and financial savings for individuals.  Such systems are said to be one of the most promising sustainable urban planning interventions and are now present in more than 1000 cities worldwide

Despite this recent interest, BSS face a host of barriers, categorized as institutional, physical, and socio-cultural lock-in mechanisms – or incumbent forces that tend to maintain the status quo. These lock-ins help explain why progressive interventions such as BSS are often delayed or prevented, particularly in developing country mega-cities. Mexico City is an exemplary case of a mega-city where car-centric lock-in mechanisms have long worked against change in the mobility system. The table below provides an overview of these.

Institutional, physical, and socio-cultural lock-in mechanisms for Bike Sharing Systems in Mexico City

Institutional, physical, and socio-cultural lock-in mechanisms for Bike Sharing Systems in Mexico City

Socio-cultural lock-ins in particular are often forgotten. At the same time they are usually the most difficult to overcome due to their intrinsic nature associated with individual beliefs and attitudes.

For instance, in many places, including Mexico, the bike has long been rendered the “poor man’s” mode of transportation while the car is seen as a symbol of success. In Mexico, the term “pueblo bicicletero” (biker village) denotes a poor village, and the image of a biker being of someone who is poor and  not able to afford to buy a car. Such social perceptions have a strong cultural lock-in effect.

This lowly perception of the bike is reinforced by the mindset of many car drivers who believe they have the priority in the city landscape. Cycle paths and parking spots can be seen to detract from car spaces, sometimes leading to aggressive behavior by the ‘entitled’ car drivers.  Such attitudes maintain car drivers’ domination in Mexico and elsewhere, and scare away potential bike users.

In order to address these barriers,  Mexico City took on a comprehensive and creative set of measures.

First, the city decided to change the image of the bicycle by branding the bike-share scheme as “la manera inteligente de moverse” (the intelligent way to travel): it is healthy, helps the planet, and reduces travel time. This helped engender a new profile of a cyclist: one who is middle class, educated, and for whom biking is a choice rather than an economic necessity.  The bicycle has thereby gained visibility, social acceptance, and legitimacy.

Bike-Sharing systems poster for Mexico City

Bike-Sharing systems poster for Mexico City

Second, the city decided to address aggressive driver behavior through a specific communications campaign to educate drivers on the benefits of cycles.  Messages included, for instance, “One cyclist is one less car on the road for you to arrive to work faster” and “One cyclist is one more parking spot open for you.”

Another distinguishing feature of EcoBici is the use of yearly perception surveys with  questions ranging from user profile, travel characteristics, transport habits, and the impact of Ecobici on the user.

The viability of EcoBici and the overall image of biking has been transformed. The program, which started in 2010 with 85 docking stations and 1000 bicycles, has expanded to over 446 docking stations and 6000 bicycles.  User demand averages 34,000 daily users.  EcoBici is the largest in the region and has been replicated in other Latin American cities. In addition, CDMX won the 2013 Ciclociudades Award.

Ecobici has

  • reduced 8% of taxi use and 5% of private car use,
  • reduced carbon emissions by 499 tons of CO2, and
  • saved more than 2,000 days in aggregated travel time.

In addition, roughly 82% of users have reported positive changes in their quality of life:

  • 44% are more relaxed,
  • 38% save money,
  • 36% have improved physical condition, and
  • 26% have more time.

Mexico is not the first and certainly not the last city to move toward sustainable mobility. As urban populations grow, traffic worsens, pollution soars, and a greater awareness arises around climate change, it is increasingly necessary to understand how successful transitions away from the private motorized vehicle toward more environmentally sound, efficient, and shared options can be promoted. Mexico City’s EcoBici bike-sharing program shows specific ways in which the lock-ins of the incumbent motorized automobile system were intentionally and holistically addressed. The success story of EcoBici may inspire other cities, some still to be built, that a transition toward BSS is possible, including in an emerging economy mega-city.

A major opportunity is the fact that 60% of the urban areas needed by the end of this century still remain to be built and that mobility systems for those cities are still in their formative stages. An overwhelming majority of these urban areas will be in developing countries. Hence, efforts towards more sustainable urban mobility are both timely and necessary to avoid the long-term lock-in of highly polluting automobility systems.

One of the mayors of Lyon, France, famously said:  “There are two types of mayors in the world: those who have bike-sharing and those who want bike-sharing.”    In the 21st century, two hundred years after the invention of the bicycle, we may finally see a world with an overwhelming majority of the first kind of mayor.  Those cities will be less congested and polluted; they will operate according to sharing principles, they will be more livable and breathable. Those cities may be planned and built not for auto-mobility but for citizen mobility.

Naima von Ritter Figueres (@naima.v.r) is a recent graduate of the MSc Development Management programme. Her Master’s thesis, Lock-In Does Not Lock Out: Bike-Sharing in the Transition Towards Sustainable Urban Mobility, investigated systemic barriers and opportunities of introducing bike-sharing systems in megacities, with a specific case study on Mexico City’s EcoBici program. She is currently an Ambassador for Art / Earth / Tech Institute co-leading research on shared living trends. You can email her at naima.ritter@gmail.com.